More childhood experts are advocating less coddling and more freedom for kids to explore, problem solve and create their own play - even if it means bruises.
SINGAPORE: Playgrounds aren’t exactly child’s play for three-year-old Luke Rodrigues. He finds himself challenged to navigate stairs that are higher and slides that are steeper than usual, plus obstacles more complicated for a child of his age.
His parents are constantly on the lookout for playgrounds and areas around Singapore that challenge their only child’s “physical, thinking, social and emotional skills”. Often, they find themselves surfing parenting blogs for recommendations on where Luke can explore and take risks in his play.
Their favourite so far – at Tiong Bahru Park, an adventure playground rigged with a flying fox and a merry-go-round “which teaches children to cooperate with one another”, said mum Belle Rodrigues, 34, a child development specialist.
And it’s set in a sand-pit that allows for more imagination, rather than today’s ubiquitous rubber-composite floor. “It’s one of the few playgrounds that allow children to play successfully with little supervision,” she adds.
Luke Rodrigues, aged 3, explores a sandpit playground at Tiong Bahru Park. (Photo: Belle Rodrigues)
The Rodrigues are among a growing number of parents and early childhood educators who believe that playgrounds should be a place where children can learn to take risks, overcome the limits of their fear, problem solve and play with minimal supervision.
And if that means scraped knees and muddy shirts, well, that’s part of the process. “Children’s occupation is play. We need to let them run, get dirty and be a child. We can always clean up later," said Mrs Rodrigues.
Ms Suzanna Law, co-founder of Pop-Up Adventure Play which specialises in child-directed play, agrees that parents should step back from supervision and rulemaking, to allow their children to socialise, fail and figure things out on their own. Which is what good playgrounds should do.
She said that “helicopter parents” who hover too much “stifle the child". “We see these worst case scenarios. We see a stick and immediately we imagine a stick in some kid's eye,” said Ms Law who was in Singapore this month for the Early Childhood Education Conference organised by SIM University.
GOING ‘WILD’ WITH PLAY IN SINGAPORE
That idea of risk-taking play has been encouraged by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In a recent Facebook post, he shared a New York Times article on Berlin’s “playground paradise” – play areas that let children explore spaces in forested areas, use zip lines, climb trees and build things.
Mr Lee commented: “In the US (and I suspect in Singapore too), playgrounds are less challenging because parents are more protective of their kids.”
It is good, he added, “that children grow up through exploration and risk-taking and take a few tumbles in the process. They will grow up more confident and resilient, better able to cope with unfamiliar or difficult situations”.
This is all part of a new zeitgeist envisioned, of a more rugged, tenacious generation of young Singaporeans. Earlier this year, it was announced that outdoor education programmes would be expanded, with all secondary school students required from 2020 to attend camp at Outward Bound Singapore.
But with many public and private playgrounds modelled on standard designs – including that rubber floor – can parents here find more adventurous options?
The answer, apparently, is yes. Both the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the National Parks Board (NParks) have in recent years upped the ante in playground design.
In 2018, for example, the extension of the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden will feature a rainforest adventure, where children can go “exploring a network of canopy tree huts and rope bridges nestled in the tree tops”, and attempt a flying fox down while then trying to “climb up, over and under a log challenge”, according to NParks’ group director of parks Chia Seng Jiang.
An artist's impression of the Jacob Ballas Children's Garden Rainforest Adventure, to be completed in 2018. It features a flying fox zip line. (Photo: NParks)
Said Mr Chia: “Our more popular playgrounds with a greater diversity of play sets include Sembawang Park, West Coast Park and Pasir Ris Park. In recent years, NParks has also put in place features in our parks to encourage exploration and stimulate the imagination of children.”
These other spaces include the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve Extension and Coney Island Park, while plans are in the works also at Jurong and Admiralty Park to allow more exploration play, Mr Chia added.
As for playgrounds in public housing estates, in his post, Prime Minister Lee mentions a forest-themed playground in Bukit Panjang and a military-inspired design in Choa Chu Kang. An HDB spokesman told Channel NewsAsia: “These playgrounds aim to encourage creative play and provide varying levels of challenges for children.”
Where space permits, the HDB added, “we may provide more adventurous playgrounds for children in the older age group (6 to 12 years)” – designed, for instance, around the undulating terrain or incorporating vertical climbing equipment.
At Ping Yi Greens in Bedok, the playground takes advantage of the uneven terrain to incorporate a climber and slide. (Photo: Kane Cunico)
PLAYING WITH FIRE (AND TWIGS AND NAILS AND ROPE)
But do these designs go far enough?
Ms Cheryl Tang, a Singaporean who worked as an early childhood educator here in the mid-2000s, moved to Bali and opened her own learning centre called The Anak Atelier and The Anak Atelier Playground in 2014.
She said: “Apart from conventional slides, climbing and balancing structures, good playgrounds can include elements that appeal to the children’s senses like a sound garden, water play zones, sun exposed areas and shady hideouts and corners, textured surfaces, areas for rest, and quiet socialisation.”
And then, there is going back to basics – materials such as branches, sticks and twigs or foam building blocks, with which kids can build forts and other structures in collaborative efforts.
This is at the heart of what playwork expert Ms Law advocates. Rather than comprising fixed structures, real adventure playgrounds are the ones “that children build on their own”, she said. It’s a more familiar concept in Europe and Japan than in this part of Asia.
Ms Law said: “These spaces are places where children are in charge. They shape it, they build it, and they use hammers, nails, ropes, tyres and words. They build houses, they climb trees, and they knock things down. And sometimes, they use fire.”
Children assemble their own forts and structures out of cardboard and other basic material at a Pop-up Adventure Play. (Photo: Suzanna Law)
One needn’t go to such extent, however. Any space can become an “adventure playground”, Ms Law said, because it is really up to a child’s imagination and a parent’s willingness to let go of the reins and “give them the space to be independent”.
She added: “A bad playground is one where there are too many rules. Children cannot explore what they really need to find their limits.”
TOO YOUNG, WITH NO SENSE OF DANGER?
But what about safety, some parents would ask.
Mrs Sharon Pereira has mixed feelings about letting her two-year-old roam unsupervised in a play area. Said the mother of six: “Some playgrounds have an element of risk and danger which are not positive, such as those in some shopping centres with no proper barriers around the play area, especially when it is crowded with strangers.
“Obviously I want my child to take risks, make new friends and learn how to share and take turns … but when you have a two-year-old, you find yourself being a bit more cautious.”
Another mother of a two-year-old, Ms Lydia Ng, 38, said: “I am definitely slightly concerned about the risk of injury and cultivating too much of a risk-taking mindset in a young child who doesn't understand danger. My son uses butter knives to cut things and nowadays, grabs bigger, sharper knives whenever he sees them.”
But, Ms Ng also believes that being overprotective can be detrimental, and overall, “I would still prefer more adventurous risky play over safe play any day, because I think the benefits outweigh the risks”.
“It is what I would have wanted, as a child,” she added.
A playground in Germany. (Photo: AFP)
Ms Law and Mrs Tang understand parents’ concerns. Their advice to them: Take risks in baby steps.
For instance said Mrs Tang, stay close to your child, but observe and offer words of encouragement, “rather than dictate the play”. If your child is injury-prone, assess your child's ability before attempting the play challenges. Start with something easy.
“It can be hard to swallow this as a parent - I am one myself - but sometimes, you have to take a fall in order to learn from your mistakes,” said Mrs Tang. “Hopefully it is a small fall. But the real world is not padded. Managing through their environment is a real skill that children need to learn.”
Ms Law suggests starting by giving the child five minutes alone, and build trust on both sides “so that the child learns you’re still there, and you can give the child the space”.
BACK TO THE OLD DAYS
The HDB, meanwhile, notes that all its playgrounds must meet prescribed Singapore safety standards. “These playgrounds will continue to be a fun and safe play space for children, even as we design them to be more adventurous with greater play value,” its spokesman said.
For Mrs Rodrigues, the childhood memories of playing in bygone playgrounds of sand and concrete are what inspire the desire for her son to experience the same unstructured free play she enjoyed 30 years ago – dirt, sweat, mud, bruises and all.
The iconic dragon of Toa Payoh, built in the 1970s, was one of the old sandpit variety playgrounds.
“I think the only way to get Singaporean parents to be open to adventurous play and giving their kids freedom is to increase the options,” she said, on her wish for more adventure playgrounds to be built.
“Adults grow up to learn a lot of things, but because of that knowledge, they also become more cautious and they stop being children,” said Mrs Rodrigues.
“When we make rules at the playground, little do we know that we’re making our children conform. So the question we have to ask ourselves is if we want them to be creative – or if we want them to conform and be the same.”
Watch out for the new ground-breaking documentary, Don’t Kid Around, which explores the world of four-year-olds - how they live, play and interact at a preschool. It airs in August as a Channel NewsAsia Signature series.